Search for a Killer

UPDATED 02/11/1991 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/11/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

The fear and horror reached levels of near hysteria last August when five college students were found murdered and mutilated near the University of Florida in Gainesville. In the aftermath of the killings, hundreds of frightened students temporarily fled the campus. It was not only the grisliness and scale of the crimes, but the taunting style of the killer, that sent a shudder through investigators when the bodies of four attractive young women and one young man were discovered within 40 hours. The head of one victim had been viciously severed and displayed on a bookshelf in her off-campus apartment.

Even more chilling, the killer covered his tracks with a thoroughness that implied a knowledge of police procedure. He used cleaning solvents to remove semen and other physical evidence from the bodies; he used duct tape to bind his victims, then removed it as potential evidence after he had killed them. Finally, Gainesville task force police say, he left subtle evidence they won't discuss in order to thumb his nose at investigators.

Almost from the start, detectives sought to find a link between the Gainesville slaughter and a triple murder that had taken place 10 months earlier, on Nov. 4, 1989, in Shreveport, La. Another college student, Julie Grissom, 24, had been stabbed to death, and her naked corpse had been posed provocatively by her killer. Her father and her 8-year-old nephew, fully dressed, also died by the murderer's knife.

The similarities between the Gainesville and Shreveport murders were disturbing and striking: the use of a knife as the murder weapon, solvents to eliminate clues, duct tape to bind the victims and, finally, in both cases, the planting of secret clues to bait the police. Gainesville police Capt. R.B. Ward interpreted such clues as a statement: "You're not stopping me. Catch me if you think you can."

The police followed innumerable leads. A prominent suspect—no longer under investigation—is now in a state mental hospital after an assault on his grandmother. But despite investigator's best efforts, both cases remained unsolved. Then, late last month, came an apparent break. A new suspect in the Gainesville murders has been named, and police are now focusing their investigations on him. He is Danny Harold Rolling, 36, a convict who, coincidentally or not, comes from Shreveport. Once again it was a triumph for the plodding efficiency of ordinary police work. On Jan. 3 the Florida Law Enforcement Department took a blood sample from Rolling, who had been languishing in a Florida jail for four months on charges of armed robbery. In the course of their investigation, the Gainesville task force had attempted to match DNA "fingerprints" from the murder scenes in Gainesville with those of Florida prisoners from Louisiana. First reports on Rolling's tissue matchups, according to police, showed similarities to those found at the Gainesville crime scenes. The results of additional tests are being awaited.

The police dossier on Rolling depicted him as a man with a bizarre and violent past. When authorities ran routine checks on Danny Rolling, they found that he had served time for armed robbery in Mississippi and Georgia and spent some time in an Alabama mental hospital. They also found that he was wanted in Shreveport for the attempted murder last May of his 58-year-old father, retired police Lt. James Rolling, who was called Baby Dumpling for his short, stocky build.

Ten days after his arrest, on Sept. 17, Danny Rolling was brought before Marion County, Fla., Judge John Futch on the armed robbery charges. He insisted on pleading guilty. "I disturbed the peace of this county," he told the court. "And I am guilty, sir.... Y'all judge me as you see fit."

This was the meek Danny Rolling, who inspired pity and sympathy among friends and neighbors in Shreveport. In several letters introduced into Rolling's court records, he was described as a tragic victim of his policeman father's lifelong disapproval. "He has a father who hates him!" wrote Bernadine Holder, a family neighbor for 28 years. "Danny's father wants him dead and has stated this to me." Lillian "Bunnie" Mills, a friend who has known the family for three years, brought Danny a Bible and wrote the court a disturbing account of his behavior: "Danny would get on his knees like a little child and say, 'Oh, Bunnie, I love my dad, I try so hard to please him....' Then he'd cry. His heart was breaking." Mills said Danny wasn't allowed to walk through the house with his shoes on and that she had once seen him lace and unlace his shoes seven times merely to go to the kitchen.

A younger brother, Kevin, 35, was spared his father's wrath, but Danny's mother, Claudia, according to a relative, was not allowed to wash her older son's clothes or cook his meals. She wrote to the court, "I have started this letter so many times trying to save my son but also my husband, but no matter how I try, it comes out the same: Danny was an abused child. From the day he was born, my husband was jealous of him. He never wanted me to hold him or show him love in his presence. Danny was told from the time he could understand that he would be dead or in jail before he reached 15 years of age. His self-esteem was destroyed by his dad's constant belittling."

T. William "Bill" Pickens, 59, a retired major in the Shreveport Police Department, doesn't believe the stories about his former colleague. "I policed with him for 22 years, and I never saw the physical bad side of him," says Pickens. "There's a difference between child abuse and discipline." Yet Pickens does concede that the elder Rolling was less than congenial. "It wasn't his fault," he says. "It was just his way."

Danny was a powerful 6'2"—a full six inches taller than his father—but no matter how big Danny got, he never seemed to escape the shadow of his father's resentment. He married early and fathered a child, but the marriage lasted only a few months. When he was released from a Mississippi prison in July 1988, he returned home to stay with his parents. Last May 17 a screaming argument broke out when Danny refused to roll up the window of the family car. James Rolling fired his service revolver into the air, then stormed into the house, presumably to call the police. Danny, who had been arrested on charges of possession of marijuana two days earlier, kicked down the front door, seized his father's gun and shot him between the eyes. He then "stomped him," said Pickens, before firing another round into his father's abdomen.

At about 10 that evening, Louisa Biedenharn and Steve Clausen were sitting in their Shreveport bedroom watching TV when Danny Rolling, wearing combat boots, camouflage fatigues, a bandanna and a four-inch hunting knife in his boot, jimmied a set of French doors at their home, crept up the stairs and waved a gun at Clausen. They knew each other because Danny had done some handyman work for the couple. "He said, 'I'm in big trouble. I just shot my father,' " says Biedenharn. Then they all went down to the kitchen, and over the next two hours Danny Rolling gave what the terrified Biedenharn later described as a "Jekyll and Hyde" performance. At one point he said, "I love you guys. I don't know why I'm doing this." When Steve appealed to their friendship, Danny handed over the gun. Then, moments later, he pulled out another gun and took back the first weapon. "He would turn sweet and put the gun down, then he would get mad over something and pick it up," says Biedenharn. Finally he left, taking $30, a couple of cookies, an apple and an old jacket.

He first came to the attention of Florida police last Sept. 7, 10 days after the last of the Gainesville murders, when officers responded to an armed robbery at a Winn-Dixie supermarket in Ocala, some 30 miles south of the University of Florida. The alleged gunman, subsequently identified as Rolling, led the police on an 80-mph chase, which ended only when he crashed his 1983 Mustang into a parked car.

Inside the Mustang, police found a blue-steel Colt revolver, four bullets and four bags of money totaling nearly $2,000. It turned out that the car had been reported stolen in Tampa 12 hours earlier from Ray and Patricia Rio. Someone had slipped into their apartment through a sliding glass door while they were asleep and stolen the car keys and two watches. The intruder had eaten a banana and left the peel prominently displayed on a chair.

On New Year's Day, while Rolling was awaiting sentencing on the armed-robbery charges, the violent Mr. Hyde in Danny Rolling showed himself to authorities at the Marion County Jail when he ripped a prison cell toilet from its mounting and repeatedly heaved it against a dayroom window. By then, Victoria Lizarralde, assistant public defender, had seen enough behavioral quirks to ask for psychological tests on Rolling, as well as to move for the withdrawal of his guilty plea.

Meanwhile, Gainesville investigators had some 25 hair samples taken from Rolling for further DNA analysis. Reportedly, his clothing and some unidentified personal property were found at the time of the killings at a campsite near the University of Florida campus, placing him within range of the crime scene. In addition, police sources and psychologists have taken special interest in the fact that Rolling's father—partially blind and deaf in one ear due to the shooting—was a police lieutenant. Should Rolling turn out to be the killer, that, they believe, would explain the technical proficiency that characterized both the Gainesville and Shreveport murders. (Rolling is not a suspect in the Shreveport murders at this time.) Within the next few weeks, the results of tests on Rolling's hair, tissue and blood samples will be completed; at that point, police will decide whether or not to press charges in connection with the Gainesville killings. Only if he is linked to those bloody crimes beyond a reasonable doubt will the town—and the university—be relieved of the burden of fear they have carried for more than five months.

—Ken Gross, Meg Grant in Ocala, Ron Ridenhour in Shreveport

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